If you haven’t yet seen Wittenberg at the Aurora Theater, run now and get tickets. (Okay, it’s probably easier to call the box office, which is only open during business hours, so if you’re reading this before 9:00 or after 5:00, then you may have to wait.)
I highly recommend this witty, energetic, smart production. The setting is Wittenberg University, a sort of UC Berkeley of the early 16th century. The cast of characters is full of familiar names, but it will be the first time you see all of them portrayed on the same stage at once. First, there’s a young Prince Hamlet, back when he was still a student, before the whole tragedy of his uncle killing his father and marrying his mother. (Oops, I should have given a spoiler alert…) Wittenberg‘s Hamlet is a promising tennis player who (not surprisingly) is having difficulty with a weighty decision—he has to declare a major.
Enter his philosophy professor, Dr. Faustus, who questions authority, the church, and, well, everything. Faustus does his best to convince the future king to study philosophy and—playing the role of the devil before he makes his own bargain—take drugs. Of course Hamlet’s theology prof, Martin Luther (future father of the Protestant Reformation) is encouraging the young prince to follow God. Let the wackiness ensue.
Bay Area veteran actor Dan Hiatt deftly plays Martin Luther, a man whose faith tells him that the Catholic Church is going astray but who loves the church and genuinely wants to reform from within. Luther has a love/hate relationship with his buddy and nemesis, Faustus, and many of the play’s strongest moments are their debates.
New to Aurora, Michael Stevenson is great as Faustus and performs with abundant energy and exuberance—the cool, funny prof with a mischievous streak and the best weed. But he also shows vulnerability and heart as the hopeful bridegroom.
Jeremy Kahn may have the most difficult role to pull off, considering Hamlet is a character with whom the audience is already quite familiar. But this is Hamlet when he was still innocent, before he has to avenge his father’s murder, and so can be played with a lightness and humor that Olivier could never have considered. I’ve seen Kahn play two other roles that were vastly different from this one, and he performed all three quite convincingly. (His Bill Gates is certainly worlds apart from the young Dane.)
Infused with several references to Shakespeare’s rather more somber play, Wittenberg turns well-known lines from Hamlet‘s soliloquy upside down, squeezing comedy from unlikely sources. Director Josh Costello uses the intimate theater space to the play’s advantage, transforming audience members into Hamlet’s classmates at Wittenberg, where we experience his dilemma of being torn between his two mentors.
Despite the laughter—and there is much of it—several serious themes arise as well, including faith versus knowledge, rebellion versus authority, the power of free speech, the complexity of love, and the question: what is true independence?
Due to a playful under-the-sheets sex scene that is quite funny, this is not a show for kids. But it is wonderful theater that made me laugh out loud and think about serious issues. How many plays can do that?